When “work” doesn’t equal “paycheck” and is absolutely desirable

This is the first year I’m not working at a church since 2007.

Well, let’s clarify that statement a bit. By “year,” I mean school year that begins with a ridiculous amount of book-purchasing in mid-August. By “working,” I mean showing up at a church throughout the week, expecting to work in a leadership or organizational role in exchange for either money or course credit. By “church,” I mean a building that holds Sunday morning worship services in the United Methodist tradition of hymn-singing and preaching (and handbell playing, if I had any say in it). By “2007,” I mean, well, 5 years ago.

Certainly, church had been a part of my identity long before I began working at them. Whether it was making my father sit in the front pew and dance along to the song “I am the Church” (which I still stand by as a TOTALLY SANE AND NOT AT ALL OBNOXIOUS THING TO DO–love you, Dad!) or begging mom to stay at church later on choir rehearsal nights so my sister Chrissy and I could eat spaghetti with all the cool kids, “church life” has long been a part of who I am, and what I did. The only difference is that I hadn’t been to seminary then.

And, well, 3 years and a few loans later, I have. I’ve fought with TAs, read a lot of books, struggled with ideas, and written a lot of papers. But more importantly, during my three years there I’ve been able to work at–and immerse myself in–three very different church settings, all of which helped me gain a small semblance of pastoral identity, some cracks at real-world ministry outside the Academy, and a whole lot of chances to ask “What would I do [in this situation/with this room/in reaction/etc/etc/etc]?” Which is a wonderful thing, and I can’t believe I’m not going back to STH in September.

What that also means, though, is that I’ve gotten used to rocking a few boats. To asking why there isn’t a handbell choir at BC or why the bulletin board says the same thing or why there can’t be a coffee hour. And then “fixing” them–or rather, making sure they happen. Which is fine and dandy when you’re a member of the club or are a staff member of the church or have been granted rights to start a project. When you’re new to town and have shown up at church twice, it might be a teensy little bit of a problem.

Operative word: might. I’m asking for prayers, y’all.

We’ve been to services at Ripon Immanuel UMC for 4 times over the past six weeks or so. People are very welcoming (we were offered mini “Welcome to Ripon” loaves of zucchini bread for the first three weeks), and are very excited to meet us and know what we’re up to in town and have us get involved.

This isn’t just what happens in Ripon, though. David and I have noticed that when we attend any church as visitors, really, we’re swarmed by a bunch of older folks who are very excited that a young couple showed up. Like, “join our choir!” “we have a great children’s program!” “you live around here, right?” sort of excited. My favorite “Come back!” invitation: “If you two kept coming, maybe we’d start a Sunday School!”

At the time, Immanuel UMC didn’t really know who had walked through those doors. I’m sure. I’m teaching 5th and 6th grade Sunday School. David’s in a young adult (-ish…) small group. They’re soon to find out that I’m working towards ordination (I’m meeting with the SPRC tomorrow night), and in the next few weeks I’ll be leading the music for their 10:30 a.m. service on a weekly basis.

Take note: after all these years, I’m actually going to be doing the music ministry thing! For real! At a legit church! Let’s all do a happy-dance!

And so I’m currently looking at the worship service as it stands now, comparing it to what people explain it as, and listening to their hopes and dreams for the service (which, at this point, seems to boil down to more contemporary music). And I get to put my seminary education to the test: can I enact worship as well as I can plan it? Can I actually facilitate evangelism with a group of people as well as I can theologize about it? I pray that I have the grace and patience to translate all that I’ve learned and imagined into something worthwhile for these wonderful people.

If doing stuff at church could be my actual job, I’d be elated. Since that’s not possible, I’m going to make it a significant part of what I do when not serving and assisting the elderly. If that means “holding church” in our family room while I pound out hymns and belt out old LAG songs and write out gospel harmonies while still in my scrubs from that morning, so be it. It might not be seminary, but it sure is practical theology.


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